Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Waiting for the illusionist

(photo: jorge barrera)

Chavez laying hands on a heat stroke victim during the final rally before the 2004 referendum on his presidency.

"....opening a way among the lepers and blind men and cripples who begged the salt of health from his hands...."
The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Just before he took office in 1999, Chávez traveled with Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez to Cuba. "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men," Márquez later wrote of the two faces of Chavez. "One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot." With Chávez's legacy still unfolding, we are left to choose the face we prefer to see.

A night in 23

The Saturday before the referendum vote I stayed in the 23 Enero barrio, named after the day in 1958 that dictator Perez Jimenez was overthrown. Here the most militant of Chavez' grassroots supporters live and fight and one aging revolutionary told me blood would flow if Chavez lost the vote. “I never thought we would get the revolution without a bullet,” he said. All night gunfire and fireworks burst in a darkness drenched with Salsa music. The Tupamaros were running security and their radios crackled every time an unidentified vehicle entered the barrio. Everyone was armed. The guy I was with stuffed a Glock 9 mm in his pants before we went for a walk by the wall of martyrs painted with the faces of their assassinated comrades. I slept for a couple hours that night in a 1950s era concrete slab apartment building so infested with crime my billet would not go up certain staircases fearing we could be mugged on the way to his sparsely decorated apartment with the single crucifix hanging on a bare wall in the guest room. We ate arepas at 5 a.m., unable to sleep as a result of the endless racket that rocked the night. By 7 a.m. I entered the school house where Chavez was expected to cast his ballot. Media were beginning to assemble there and I bought a coffee for one of the soldiers who said he hadn’t eaten breakfast that day. Smoking filterless Mexican cigarettes handed out by a reporter for Narco News we waited for the Man to arrive. A Colombian radio reporter told me democracy had ended in Venezuela. “He won’t leave without bloodshed,” he said.
I got a picture of him
Pandemonium met Chavez when he arrived. Penned in a small area just outside the voting booths, the hundred or so journalists and photographers crushed to the front the moment the president appeared before the microphone. A cameraman climbed on my back to get off a shot. Soldiers barred the doors as Chavez left. Outside, barrio residents had gathered in a frenzy of hero worship as the media banged on the metal gates and shouted to bet let out. When the gates opened a mad wave of television cameras and reporters gushed out, everyone straining to get close to Chavez, to ask a question, take a final photo. Our wave swirled into the mass of red-shirted, dancing Chavez supporters delirious in the presence of their savior held at bay by the armed presidential escort. As Chavez’ motorcade left and the waters subsided a Brazilian journalist tugged my arm and with a beaming face showed me a photograph in his small digital camera. “I got a picture of him,” he said.
The Man won
At 4 a.m. Monday there was a banging on my apartment door. It was my neighbour. “Chavez won, Chavez won.” Rain was falling in torrents. I called a cab that hushed through the empty mirrored streets to downtown. The cab’s radio was on and Chavez was rolling into his victory speech. I put my tape recorder over the back speakers. “The people have spoken with the voice of God.” The cab driver stopped near an alley that led to Miraflores, the presidential palace. There, aglow in television lights that turned each raindrop into a sliver needle, Chavez stood in a balcony, the Venezuelan flag draped over the railing. “The Man won, the Man won,” screamed a dancing woman into my tape recorder. It was a controlled riot of ecstasy. A fire dancer twirled a flaming baton that seemed impervious to the water that had drenched my shirt to the skin.
I thought we were going to win
At 6 a.m. I walked by a Catholic church in central Caracas. The rain had subsided and through the open door I could see several people standing, rosaries in hand, heads bowed. A man walked out. He was from Catia, a working-class neighbourhood with a thriving black market of electronics, gold and pirated DVDs. He had tears in his eyes. He voted against Chavez. “I thought we were going to win,” he said.